Porto, Portugal: A city with soul, wine, and beauty
Porto, Portugal, is a city with soul, populated with a genial and supportive community. The unhurried pace of life in Porto mirrors the graceful flow of ocean waves rolling on her shores and makes the strife in the world seem distant and remote. Brilliant blue skies set against red tile roofs and the sun glittering on the Douro River summon the anticipation of summer and the promise of adventures to unfold. Northern Portugal is a remarkable oasis for travelers in a destination-saturated planet.
Old Porto is the hub for sightseeing, cuisine and river tours. Amidst the narrow streets that wind their way through town lie several stretches of pedestrian-only cobblestone streets. These quaint thoroughfares are lined with shops and cafes, bistros and wine bars.
Although there are many inexpensive parking garages located all over the city, it is advisable to take public transport to the city center. The narrow and steep streets are difficult to navigate and lack easily readable street signs.
The public squares in Porto are filled with ornate fountains and Portuguese statues, overlooking grand stone churches and the multi-colored tiled fronts of old buildings; the structures contain shops and businesses on the ground level and apartments and small pensions on the higher floors. It is common to see the city's residents gazing from their small balconies down on the colorful and busy streets.
One of the best places to walk and see Old Porto is down by the Douro River. In the spring and summer, wait until evening when it's cooled down and the restaurants start to open for dinner. The walkways, buildings and river are aglow with the long, golden rays of evening sunlight and make for an enchanted stroll. The walkways meander past side streets and are tucked in alcoves that open up to hidden bistros and restaurants that seat guests on quaint balconies overlooking the river or small courtyard gardens.
Look carefully at the doors you pass, as some are indeed charming residences; but on closer inspection, some doors lead into wine bistros and cafes with a treasure of Port wines and some of the best traditional Portuguese fare in the city. Go off the beaten path and follow a cobblestone side street; or explore a flight of ancient stone steps and you may run into unexpected little shops selling Portuguese goods, with locals chatting over an evening espresso.
Restaurants and small wine bistros line the banks of the Douro and tour boats are available day and night for one-hour river cruises at reasonable prices. Take a sunset cruise and have your camera ready for some stellar photo opportunities.
RestaurantsRua de Santa Catarina is one of the most popular avenues and is home to the Majestic Cafe. Established in 1921, the Majestic is a magnificent and beautiful landmark where locals and tourists gather to sip an espresso and share conversation. Both sides of the cafe's entrance are lined with wrought-iron padded chairs and white marble bistro tables, sheltered by large billowy umbrellas to shade guests during the heat of the day. Italian Renaissance-style stonework graces the cafe's facade; however, step inside the Majestic and a jewel of architecture reveals itself. A stunning combination of dark, hand-carved filigree woodwork surrounds intricately framed mirrors, archways and walls, emphasizing the ornate decor wherever you gaze. Deep-green marble floors and smooth, round columns accent white linen tabletops. Lighting fixtures with old European designs illuminate the sculptured cherubs smiling down on the cafe's patrons.
The Majestic also features an outside back courtyard with additional seating. It is accessible at the rear of the building, by way of a curving stone stairway, flanked by stone Italian statues and urns overflowing with colorful flora. The menu is excellent and offers various bar selections, as well as gourmet espresso and teas. The Majestic Cafe is truly glorious and is a priority when visiting Porto.
One of the best spots for excellent dining and a sociable atmosphere is the Ar De Rio Grill, located on the banks of the Douro. It has indoor and outdoor seating and in the evening, big screen monitors broadcast MCM, which is a French equivalent of VHS, but plays cool American and foreign music videos. The volume in general gets a bit loud, but table conversation is still audible. The restaurant's specialty is a small portable barbeque brought to your table with a tasty selection of veggies and meats to grill. This restaurant and bar is a favorite for locals and tourists.
A more relaxed atmosphere for dinner with a gorgeous sunset view of the river is the Real Indiana Restaurant just a few blocks down from the Ar De Rio Grill. Make sure to ask for balcony seating. The Indian cuisine is exceptional and guests can choose spice levels.
If you prefer an intimate glass of Port and nibbles, go further west along the riverbank to Garrafeira Do Infante. This small stone-block bistro boasts the best and rarest Port Wines and serves exquisite local cured meats and cheeses. Luis, resident server at Infante, has a wealth of knowledge about Port wine and Portugal in general and his charismatic personality is worth an evening just to chat with him.
There are numerous superb restaurants all over Gaia and Porto, with cuisine to suit all tastes, from traditional Portuguese to American and Mediterranean. Ask your concierge or local friendly shop owner for a few suggestions if the restaurant options seem overwhelming.
HotelsThere are many fine accommodation choices with views of the ocean, usually small hotels or pensions. However to the east of Old Porto is the more modern section of the city with major hotel chains, business centers and upscale boutiques and the Norte Shopping Mall.
Travelers who prefer upscale accommodations should try the Sheraton Porto Hotel and Spa. This five-star hotel is a modern marvel with fabulous, all-inclusive spa facilities, Porto Nova, an outstanding restaurant, and chic guest rooms. The standard guest rooms offer the sweet-sleeper bed and the bathrooms are an unusual combination of marble floors and vanities and glass walls with frosted sliding glass doors. The bathtubs will accommodate guests well over six feet tall and the luxury of these rooms is fabulous for the price.
The Porto Nova Restaurant serves a gorgeous traditional Portuguese buffet on Sundays and the selection of cuisine is unbelievable. Even with all of the wonderful restaurants in Porto, Sheraton's Sunday brunch is unparalleled in presentation and quality.
Perhaps the most notable feature of the Porto Sheraton is the affable staff. The staff at Sheraton's front reception desk will help you with activity options, shopping areas, museums, wineries and sight-seeing. Ask reception and they will help you to navigate without getting lost.
Outside of PortoIf you want to go tour the Port wineries, or want a little nightlife, the town of Gaia is located across the Douro River by the Ponte D Luis Bridge. It is five minutes from Porto's old town.
Several interesting towns are just up the coastline from Porto and worth a visit. Viana Do Castello is the nicest and a small coastal community about 45 minutes from Porto. At the top of the hill from the city's center is a magnificent church Santa Luzia. Built in 1898, Santa Luzia is a lovely church with rose-adorned, stained glass windows, 26 harmonized carillon bells and sculpted stone architecture in a romantic Byzantine style. Santa Luzia is a special place and the tranquility of the church and grounds is captivating. Tourists from all over the globe stop to visit and wander through the gardens and look out over one of the most beautiful panoramas in the world.
Portugal is a marvelous and sunny place to vacation and sightsee and although the old town of Porto may not be as architecturally glamorous as other European cities, the atmosphere is much more relaxed and the people truly are among the friendliest in Western Europe.
Northern Portugal leaves an indelible mark of harmony on the traveler who takes the time to experience and immerse themselves in a culture and place that is a little East and West of disquiet.
If You Go
There are a few beaches where sunbathing rules, but most of the beach areas by the city are rocky and lined with cement walking paths. July and August are extremely hot in Porto and spring through early summer is recommended for an optimal visit.
For additional information go to Porto, Portugal tourism
More Articles by Patrice Raplee
Patrice Raplee is an experienced travel photojournalist and editor of Travel Excursion and Seattle Spotlight for Positively Entertainment magazine. Her photographs and articles have appeared in numerous NW newspapers such as the Seattle Times, the Stranger, and the Oregonian. As a freelance photojournalist she has also worked with acclaimed musical entertainers, such as Santana, Billy Joel and Steven Tyler. Patrice is also a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators. Additionally, she has written several children’s short stories and is currently working on an adult fiction novel for publication. Email her at Patrice@travel-excursion.com